Lymphedema Lessons for Summer Travels


I did not wear my prosthetic breast for my son’s wedding, but I did pack some lymphedema essentials for my trip.

I did not wear my new bra with my old prosthesis at my son’s wedding this summer. Packing a carry-on, I decided to toss in a slip that would work perfectly well as an undergarment with my mother-of-the-groom dress. I would have more room for sparkly sandals, as well as more fun at the wedding if I went as myself.

It was not just about the carry-on. I prefer the comfort of my own body and do not mind appearing lopsided. There is also the fact that I experience lymphedema not only in my arm but also in my mastectomy site. A loose band, or no band, is preferable when I don lingerie of any kind and try to avoid restricting my lymph system.

My other cancer-inspired accessory, a lymphedema sleeve, was not something I could leave at home, although I would not end up wearing it to the wedding itself. While I would not have forgotten this sleeve, I did get a reminder to pull it out the week before the wedding when I briefly needed another sleeve for lighter compression after overuse of my arm (mowing!) in summer’s heat.

In that case, I opted to use wet washcloths and light massage more than I wore the sleeve. Still, the reminder of my lymphedema made me plan ahead to ready the travel compression sleeve I wear on flights. For flying, I use a combined arm sleeve and gauntlet with class 2 (30-40 mmHg) compression. (I also drink lots of water through a flight to stay hydrated.)

It is best to use the compression sleeve that your medical professional advises. Different circumstances dictate different compression needs. The higher the number, the tighter the compression. For clarification, “mmHg” means millimeters of mercury. For the curious, “a millimeter of mercury is a manometric unit of pressure, formerly defined as the extra pressure generated by a column of mercury one millimetre high, and currently defined as exactly 133.322387415 pascals. It is denoted mmHg or mm Hg.”

I got home from my trip, arm no worse for the wear and feeling better than it did the week before when I overused it in the heat. Increased swelling is normal for me in the summer, so I pay attention to aches and tingles along with pitting of the skin. Others may experience a range of symptoms when lymphedema of the arm is acting up.

Since developing lymphedema early in cancer treatment, at which time I sought help from a physical therapist to navigate a new normal, I have been fortunate to keep the lymphedema fairly stable. I have become less panicky about cat scratches, which are never good, and given up weeding my yard as I am highly allergic to poison ivy. Really, what I need is a lymphedema sleeve as backup, wet washcloths, hydration, sunscreen, gentle swimming, self-massage, lotion and a handy antibiotic for the rare occasions I need to fend off infection.

Trying to avoid an even more swollen arm is one reason I wear a sleeve when flying, which can exacerbate lymphedema. On the bright side, I have become less self-conscious about the arm, which is slightly bigger than the other arm. A few years ago, accepting my body, I began wearing sleeveless shirts in public again. While I was never self-conscious about having one breast, a swollen arm felt conspicuous at first.

There is one area that I could work harder on, though, the edema in my chest area. This is harder to address. Over time, I have experimented with compression camisoles and a compression tube top paired with something called a “swell spot” that adds a massage-like compression to my mastectomy site. While the edema in this area is negligible, my recent flight taught me I should pay more attention to it along with my arm.

I came home from the wedding with happy memories, safe arm, and aching mastectomy site. Experiencing shooting pains and swelling, I tried compression and applied a soothing cream. I also chastised myself for not tending to this part of my body more mindfully on the trip. Fortunately, I will get things back under control in a few weeks with appropriate self-care.

Meanwhile, I have made a mental note of lymphedema supplies for the next time I travel—which I hope is sooner rather than later.

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